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The Stench of the Potomac

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The tale of how the Obama economic team was recruited en masse from Robert Rubin acolytes who either facilitated Wall Street’s pre-crash recklessness while in the Clinton administration or cashed in on it later (or, like Rubin, did both) never loses its power to shock, and is revisited in all three books. Michael Froman, Rubin’s chief of staff as Clinton Treasury secretary, not only served as the Obama transition team’s personnel director but moonlighted as a Citigroup managing director while doing so. “Obama essentially entrusted the repairing of the china shop to the bulls who’d helped ransack it,” Connaughton writes. Leibovich updates the story of the tacky prehistory of the Obama White House with its aftermath—the steady parade of Obama alumni who traded change we can believe in for cash on the barrelhead as soon as they left public service. The starry list includes, among many others, Peter Orszag (director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, now at Citi), Jake Siewert (the Treasury Department counselor turned chief flack for Goldman Sachs), and David Plouffe (the campaign manager and senior presidential adviser who did consulting for Boeing and General Electric). In a class by herself is Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director “who was instrumental in helping Michelle Obama set up her ‘Let’s Move!’ program to stop obesity in children”: She signed on as a consultant with “food manufacturers and media firms to block restrictions on commercials for sugary foods targeting children.”

“When I am president,” Obama had said in 2008, “I will start by closing the revolving door in the White House that’s allowed people to use their administration job as a stepping-stone to further their lobbying careers.” Puzzling over how so many colleagues have strayed from this credo, the former press secretary Robert Gibbs has theorized that either “somehow we have all changed” or, alternatively, “maybe Washington changed us.” Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that the president himself has been either passive or ineffectual when it comes to exerting any moral authority over the White House alumni who’ve been streaming through the revolving door.

But this syndrome didn’t start with the Obama administration and won’t end with it. Perhaps the more useful question to ask is when and why this change came over Washington’s entire Democratic hierarchy. There have always been lobbyists in both parties, of course, and there have always been powerful Democratic influence peddlers to match their Republican counterparts. Clark Clifford, Robert Strauss, and Vernon Jordan—the respective pals of Truman, LBJ, and Bill Clinton—are among the most legendary Washington operators of the post–World War II era. But what once was an unsavory appendix to the legislative process has scaled up over the past three decades to become a dominant, if not the dominant, Washington private industry. And while some former office holders, senators and members of Congress included, have always joined the lobbying ranks, lobbying and its adjuncts have now become the career havens of choice for Establishment Democrats with government résumés, not just for Republicans traditionally aligned with corporate interests. There’s more status than shame in joining this gold rush—as we see in This Town—and many of the Democratic practitioners barely pay lip service to the ideal of siding with working- and middle-class Americans against the plutocrats of finance and industry. They are too busy rushing to partner with Republicans in servicing the very same corporate accounts.

No sooner did the Democrat Evan Bayh bolt from the Senate in 2010 with a sanctimonious Times op-ed decrying the “corrosive system of campaign financing” than he joined with Andrew Card, the former Bush chief of staff, in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby against corporate regulatory reform. No sooner did BP despoil the Gulf than it effortlessly recruited what Leibovich calls a bipartisan “Beltway dream team” that included both a former top spokeswoman for Dick Cheney and the Democratic super-­lobbyist and fund-raiser Tony Podesta, who was also a prominent ambassador for corporate interests at the 2012 Obama convention in Charlotte. In the past four years of partisan gridlock, it’s become a lazy and tiresome trope of centrist Washington punditry that the city would work if only Democrats and Republicans got together for a drink after-hours the way Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan did back in the day. But the truth is that Democratic and Republican potentates do get together—every night, lubricated with plenty of ­alcohol—albeit to further their clients’ interests rather than those of the voters.

The relatively recent rise of lobbying as both a major industry and a full-time employment service for former public officials began in earnest in the post-Watergate seventies. The journalist Robert Kaiser, who tracked “the triumph of lobbying” in his 2009 book So Damn Much Money, discovered that the cost of a winning congressional campaign went up roughly fifteenfold between 1976 and 2006, empowering corporate money in the political marketplace more than ever. Over that period, he wrote, “the amount of money spent on Washington lobbying increased from tens of millions to billions a year.” Last year, The Atlantic reported that while only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists in 1974, that number has now jumped to 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of the House. This time frame tracks exactly with the rise of economic inequality and the stagnation of the middle class, concerns that Obama has started talking about lately without acknowledging his own party’s role in perpetuating them. As Packer writes, the period when Robert Rubin “stood at the top of Wall Street and Washington was the age of inequality—hereditary inequality beyond anything the country had seen since the nineteenth century.”


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